Skills, strategy, bumf and bargle

(February 23, 2021)

Observing the first efforts of Advanced Education, Skills and Immigration Minister Wayne Ewasko, I am in awe of the Pallister government’s ability to make a bad situation worse, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Of course, Ewasko is no more responsible for this latest debacle than he is for the Winnipeg Jets’ decision to trade Patrik Laine. Given the newly created (no website) department and the newly minted minister, it’s no stretch to realize someone else was behind the tortuous language of “Manitoba’s Skills, Talent and Knowledge Strategy.”

Premier Brian Pallister seems to have a compulsion to turn allies into antagonists, coupled with very poor political memory.

In the 2017 budget, Pallister’s government phased out the tuition fee rebate for graduating students who remained in Manitoba, supposedly saving $52 million a year and giving graduates yet another reason to move elsewhere to pursue their careers. These are the same young people Ewasko now wants to stay and enable both our pandemic recovery and a sustainable future for Manitoba.

Forget the awkward homilies about useful education, Mr. Premier — restore the tuition tax credit, or watch them continue to leave and put down roots elsewhere.

Then, in 2018, the government made international students ineligible for provincial health care, supposedly saving $3.1 million a year. That same year, by our tone-deaf government’s own numbers, international students from 100 countries contributed $400 million and supported 4,250 jobs in Manitoba. Bizarrely, that same government then went on to proclaim 2019 as the Year of International Education in Manitoba.

FYI: removing the probate fees in 2020 (the tax on dead rich people) cost the government at least the $9.2 million collected in 2018-19 – or roughly three times more money than it saved by cancelling the international students’ health care.

When Pallister has a bee in his bonnet, there is always money to spare. When it comes to post-secondary education, however, his attitude oscillates between ordering us to “Do More with Less” and then claiming “Less is More.”

In real dollars, post-secondary funding has dropped every year under Pallister’s watch. To make things worse, the government lurked and threatened outside labour negotiations in 2016 with faculty at the University of Manitoba, if it did not actively interfere. As the University of Winnipeg Faculty Association renegotiates contracts that expired in 2020, how Ewasko implements this new post-secondary strategy is therefore critical.

After all, there is a difference between education and training: education develops the whole person, while training provides or increases a practical skill set. As someone who taught for 11 years at Red River College (until early retirement), and continues to teach at both the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg, I have often discussed this difference with colleagues.

Good post-secondary education for Manitobans requires both education and training – but not necessarily at the same time, or in the same place.

At RRC, the focus on training comes at a personal cost to students, as “harder” skills development can overwhelm the “softer” and perhaps more important aspects of their education. They may get a job at graduation, but keeping it long-term is another story.

We often heard that the normal “shelf-life” of a diploma was three to five years past graduation, after which students required retraining, perhaps in an entirely new field. In a crowded curriculum, therefore, how could we also include “soft” courses that encouraged the lifelong learning skills and abilities our graduates would soon require?

I participated in the attempted shift to a polytechnic model, in which RRC tried to deliver both kinds of courses — but, thanks to reductions in funding and unimaginative new leadership, that initiative morphed into building new facilities instead of investing in new staff and dynamic programming.

For more than two decades, I have witnessed inspired, dedicated teaching and service from many colleagues in all three institutions. But I have also seen administrative decisions about faculty hiring and program curriculum that were driven by incompetence, insecurity and privilege, without much concern for students or their futures in Manitoba or anywhere else.

All post-secondary institutions in Manitoba could do better: communications skills, critical thinking skills and ethical reasoning are important for the employability and well-being of all future citizens, but they need to be taught to everybody — not just expected to appear.

We also need an intentional focus on sustainability in all post-secondary educational settings — grounded in principles of ecological, racial and social justice — because our graduates will live in the future we are choosing together every day.

Whatever bumf and bargle has been foisted on him by his predecessor (and by Pallister), Wayne Ewasko — as a former teacher and guidance counsellor — should know by now what good education and effective training both require.

He did not write that befuddled homily — he just delivered it — but Ewasko will certainly wear the consequences of its implementation.

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